Distant Voices, Still Lives

It’s hard to say what Terence Davies’s powerful masterpiece is aboutgrowing up in a working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50swithout making it sound familiar and lugubrious. In fact, this beautiful memoir, conceivably one of the greatest of all English films, is so startling and original that we may not have the vocabulary to do it justice. Organized achronologically, so that events are perceived more in terms of emotional continuity than of narrative progression, the film concentrates on family events like weddings and funerals and on songs sung at parties and the local pub. It’s clear that Davies’s childhood, which was lorded over by a brutal and tyrannical father, was not an easy one, yet the delight shown and conveyed by the well-known songs makes the experience of this film cathartic and hopeful as well as sorrowful and tragic. (There are some wonderful laughs as well.) Much of the film emphasizes the bonds between the women in the family and their female friends, although there’s nothing doctrinal or polemical about its vision, and the purity and intensity of its emotional thrust are such that all the characters are treated with passion and understanding. The sense of the periods depictedranging from the blitz to a mid-50s screening of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing at the Futurist Cinemais both precise and luminous. With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, and Lorraine Ashbourne; winner of the International Critics’ Prize at the 1988 Cannes film festival. (JR)

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